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Why a Natural (Green) Burial Is a Good Idea

Category: Green Retirement Communities

February 7, 2012 — When my sister-in-law, the nature writer and environmentalist Susan Cerulean, first proposed a natural burial (also called a green, or conservation burial) for her father, I have to admit there was some serious eye-rolling on my part. And after I heard the scouting report on the first green cemetery she considered, I was even more sceptical. To an outsider the setting seemed undignified, and the people running it appeared more interested in the profit motive than in saving the planet. Fortunately she was able to find another cemetery nearby, a place of great peace and beauty that met all of her objectives for a natural burial.

After experiencing the serene and just about perfect natural burial last week of my father-in-law, Bob, I became a convert. My conclusion is that this type of burial provides a soothing and beautiful end of life experience – particularly appropriate for any nature lover. This article will tell you about the concept and how it works.

What is a green, or natural burial
There is a small but growing number of natural cemeteries in the U.S. The idea is to have a beautiful final resting place where you can biodegrade naturally, preserve natural habitat, and protect the environment for future generations. In a natural cemetery embalmed bodies are prohibited, because embalming fluids typically include formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen that endangers funeral workers and slows down decomposition. Metal caskets and other objects that are not biodegradable are also prohibited in natural burials. In most cases cremated remains are accepted (although there is some evidence that that process generates pollution). There are no grave stones, although a metal marker at ground level is often provided. A young sapling tree is planted at the head of every grave. Relatives have a choice of native trees with which to remember their loved one, in our case we chose a native sand oak, which will over the course of its life grow to 60 feet. In the case of Bob’s resting place, a beautiful and huge piece of driftwood also marked the site. Additionally, all graves are precisely located by GPS.
prairie creek, gainesville fl

Bob passed away 10 days ago after years of serious health issues. He was buried last week at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery just east of Gainesville, Florida. The cemetery is a 78 acre conservation burial ground following the green burial certification standards of the Green Burial Council. The site includes wild grass meadows and stands of classic North Florida oaks, and is maintained as conservation land. Proceeds from burials at PCCC, which currently cost $2000, are used to purchase and conserve land for future generations.

Why this ceremony was so appealing
Foremost in my mind was the setting at Prairie Creek – this natural preserve with its grasses and live oaks is incredibly beautiful. Upon arrival we were greeted by the friendly staff at a handsome welcome center. Families have the option to choose a family ceremony or a burial conducted by a funeral home. natural burial

We chose a family burial, one conducted by family and friends. The hole was previously prepared by volunteers in a setting under a towering live oak. Using ropes, The family lowered the pine casket into Bob’s final resting place. Family and friends shared reminiscences and a granddaughter read the 23rd Psalm. Nephew Jim, member of a Michigan American Legion unit who frequently plays his trumpet at military burials, played a moving tune. Using shovels provided, family members re-filled the grave and decorated it with flower petals and pine straw. The sapling was planted and Jim played the always haunting “Taps”. Doug, a retired Marine Colonel, saluted his father the WWII combat veteran, and the ceremony was concluded. The family then shared a picnic under a neighboring tree.

The entire effect was very soothing. Instead of having the formal and stiff aura that can happen when funeral home professionals are in charge, our informal ceremony matched Bob’s family-oriented personality. Not every family includes a musician who can play taps, but music can always be provided in some other way. The decoration of the grave, the planting of the tree, and even the replacement of the dirt back into the grave, which took about 20 minutes, was therapeutic to the grieving process.

If you decide to do this
Some planning is necessary if you opt for a green burial for yourself or a loved one. More information can be had at GreenBurials.org. Two important steps: First, identify a Conservation Cemetery in advance to get more educated about the process and any requirements you have to meet. Second, contact a funeral home in advance to find one that will help you in this process. They will manage important details such as refrigeration of the remains until the interment (or cremation if that is chosen). They will handle the death certificate and provide transportation of the remains to the cemetery (or supply the permit if you choose to handle this yourself).

For further reference:
Greenburials.org
Wikipedia on Natural Burials
A Will for the Woods“, sample clip from a documentary in production
Find a Natural Burial Site

Comments? Burials and death are not pleasant topics to think about. But the best thinking we have heard on the subject is that they are inevitable. So please share your thoughts about your plans for leaving this world gracefully with others on this site.

Posted by John Brady on February 7th, 2012

11 Comments »

  1. Lovely description, John, and my condolences on the loss of your sister-in-law’s dad. There is a lot happening in the funeral business. Not sure if people know you can also have a diamond created from the cremains or lock of hair of a loved one (this includes pets). One company (I’m not affiliated with it in any way) is called LifeGem (www.lifegem.com). It’s been in business for a decade, so guess there is a demand for it. And, for those looking to save about a thousand dollars on a casket, you can also purchase them via the Internet at substantial savings – the funeral home must accept it. I had a friend who did this when her husband was dying – he had terminal cancer. Death is generally a taboo subject, and it’s great you opened it up for discussion.

    Jan Cullinane, The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Rodale)

    by Jan Cullinane — February 8, 2012

  2. It is nice to see the green burial movement dovetailing in many way with traditional Jewish burial practices–ie. no embalming, plain wooden caskets with holes to allow for normal decomposition-“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. The Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery offered you the flexibility to mourn and bury your father-in-law in the way he and all of you wanted. What a blessing for all!

    by Judith Lyons — February 8, 2012

  3. What a great topic and beautifully described. Thank you. This makes so much sense.

    by Susan Edwards — February 9, 2012

  4. Actually, the topic here many seem “unpleasant” or even taboo, but I would venture that many of us have either thought about it personally or discussed it with a significant other. Please keep in mind that the variety of options is large for one’s “remains.” Consider donation to medical research/teaching hospitals (not just specific organs, but whole body), cremation (mentioned in article), and others. The varieties can be significant for religious, personal, and even monetary reasons. We are on a wonderful journey.

    by Mad Monk — February 10, 2012

  5. Very thought-provoking article – I especially like the part about “Proceeds from burials at PCCC, which currently cost $2000, are used to purchase and conserve land for future generations”. I wish all burials went toward this! I will check into this more.

    by Kent — February 11, 2012

  6. Last year my mother passed away and we cremated her remains and then scattered them in San Francisco Bay where my father’s ashes were scattered many years ago. It was also a very nice way to say goodbye.
    Just another alternative.

    by LuluM — February 11, 2012

  7. Lovely description, John, and my condolences on the loss of your sister-in-law’s dad. There is a lot happening in the funeral business. Not sure if people know you can also have a diamond created from the cremains or lock of hair of a loved one (this includes pets). One company (I’m not affiliated with it in any way) is called LifeGem (www.lifegem.com).

    by shurdenkelley — April 23, 2012

  8. Update to this article. The New York Times reports that a group in California is creating a company where your remains can be used to create and preserve redwood forests, “Could Trees Be the New Gravestones?” Pretty interesting concept as we run out of space for cemeteries and all of the problems they can create.

    by Admin — June 13, 2019

  9. This is indeed an interesting article. We put too many chemicals in the ground via our own bodies and embalming fluid and for what? Green burial is now available on the grounds of a Trappist monastery about an hour away from me and it is located in the foothills of the Blueridge mountains, beautiful, quiet and peaceful. I have decided that if I am still in this area this is the route I will choose.

    by Jennifer — June 14, 2019

  10. This was wonderful info, including info in the comments. I will print it out for discussion with my kids. My spouse had requested a burial at sea. It was a LOT more complicated than I expected (no…we didn’t sneak out on a beach late at night). We chose a cruise ship option to comply with the EPA’s legal requirement that ashes be interred more than 3 nautical miles from land, and at a depth of at least 600 feet. We had to make arrangements with the cruise line in advance. The ashes were
    first put in a salt urn to comply with biodegradable requiremens. We then learned that salt urns may not be allowed through TSA (we were told by the airlines that ashes must be carried, not pin checked luggage, and can’t be transported by most postal and delivery services). The TSA said that the container has to be able to be scanned, and the salt urns might not allow scanning. The TSA instructed us to disclose to the TSA agents that the container had human remains, and TSA agents would not open the container.

    We then purchased a TSA approved biodegradable container. It had spouse’s name, dates of life and other decorations but was essentially a sturdy cardboard box. We made arrangements upon boarding with the pursar’s desk for burial at sea. Our family was accompanied to a specific place on board by staff on a sea day. The staff ensured we had privacy and then radioed to the Captain when
    the container and flowers were placed overboard. A certificate with the latitude and longitude of the burial was provided to us that evening. I hadn’t really thought about burial plans until faced with meeting my spouse’s wishes. Now I’m looking ahead to my own planning. I see a lot more pros than cons for green burials. One of the cons is that my religion does not approve of them — I’m hoping that changes as cemetaries become more crowded, particularly in urban areas.

    by Kate — June 14, 2019

  11. Sorry about the typos :-(. I hit the “submit” button by accident. Wish we could edit posts!!!

    by Kate — June 14, 2019

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